The Fighting Fist of Shanghai Joe
Chen Lee, Klaus Kinski, Gordon Mitchell, Carla Romanelli, Claudio Undari, Piero Lulli, Katsutoshi Mikuriya, Giacomo Rossi-Stuart
US theatrical: 14 May 1975
The Fighting Fist of Shanghai Joe (1973) is the last of ten spaghetti westerns that director Mario Caiano made before moving on to the horror genre. It is also the oddest, most violent, and arguably the best of the bunch. Chronicling a Chinese immigrant’s arrival to the American west in 1882, where racists run rampant and anyone with skin darker than the inside of a potato must literally fight for survival, it was the perfect plot to cash-in on the rising popularity of the kung fu genre in the ‘70s and the international stardom of Bruce Lee.
Chen Lee, who plays Shanghai Joe (who everyone calls Chin), doesn’t have even a hint of his more famous namesake’s acting talent or physical ability. Because his character is insulted, exploited, and victimized in every way imaginable, we the viewers have no choice but to emphasize with him. Whether it’s a stagecoach driver making him sit on the roof, a bunch of drunks refusing to pay him his poker winnings, or a group of cowboys promising to loan him a horse but instead unloading their six-shooters in his direction, we want nothing more than to see Chin retaliate with rage. Fortunately, it doesn’t take long for him to do just that.
When a group of neanderthal-like cowboys say, “Finally got rid of the Indians and now we’re up to our necks with chinks,” before ordering Chin to clean their boots, he responds by asking, “Why don’t you have it done by that slut of a sister you have”—and then the fighting begins. The neanderthals and their guns, however, are no match for our martial arts master of a protagonist. A super slow-motion sequence shows Chin tossing a plate into one of their faces and what appears to be a yo-yo into another’s before doing a series of jumps and kicks until they’re all knocked out.
From this scene forward, Chin kicks caucasian ass after caucasian ass, making The Fighting Fist of Shanghai Joe one of the most action-packed spaghetti westerns I have seen. The kung fu sequences, as they say, are nothing to write home about—especially if your home is in Hong Kong near the Golden Harvest studios—but they’re not bad for being directed by an Italian who specializes in horror flicks. Their weak choreographing is made up for by the insane editing that jumps around like a Godard film from one crazy slow-motion shot of Chin somersaulting through the air to another.
While some may find these shots too goofy, I found them incredibly fun. In fact, it is this goofiness of The Fighting Fist of Shanghai Joe that makes its violence so unexpected and shocking. By the time we get used to Chin doing triple backflips onto horses, hammering nails into wood with his bare hand, and killing a bull he is forced to fight by way of a karate kick to the head, we are taken by surprise when he faces off against four hired assassin and each encounter ends more violently than the one before.
These four assassins are hired by Mr. Spencer (Piero Lulli), a Mexican slave driver. Spencer is the only white man in the west that would give Chin a job, but when Chin learns what the job entails—driving Mexican immigrants through the desert like cattle and killing them if any calvary troops come near—he promptly quits in a fashion anyone who has ever worked a minimum-wage job for a big corporation dreams of: he goes on a righteous killing rampage and frees the exploited from a lifetime of enslavement.
The first assassin Spencer sends after Chin is a slobbering lanky bearded man named Pedro The Cannibal (Claudio Undari). He ambushes Chin in a shed where he is in the process of wooing a sympathetic Mexican woman named Christina (Carla Romanelli) over a meal of porridge. Christina runs out, Pedro the Cannibal explains how he has never eaten a Chinaman and would like to know which part tastes best. Chin promptly drowns him in the boiling bowl of porridge.
The second assassin is named Buryin’ Sam (Gordon Mitchell). He follows Chin and Christina to an isolated inn where they plan to rest before escaping to Mexico. Since there is only one room available, and Chin is such a gentlemen, Christina takes it and our hero sleeps in the stables out front. When he wakes the next morning, he learns that Christina has been kidnapped by Buryin’ Sam. While searching for her, Chin falls into one of Buryin’ Sam’s traps (a pit in the ground with large spikes at the bottom). But Chin, who has the cleverness of a spaghetti western antihero and the dexterity of a kung fu killer, plays dead so that he can jump from the pit and replace himself with Buryin’ Sam, who of course gets impaled on the spikes.
Chin finds Christina in a horrible state. She seems to have been sexually and mentally tormented by Buryin’ Sam and needs a doctor, so Chin rushes off to the nearest town, where he meets the third assassin, Tricky the Gambler (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart). After Chin out-tricks Tricky and kills all of his men in the saloon, the assassin tries to make a deal, telling Chin to disappear so Spencer will think he’s dead, and then they can split the bounty. Chin ponders the deal for a moment, but in the next moment he pulls both of Tricky’s eyeballs out.
The violence increases to yet another level when Chin meets Scalper Jack (Klaus Kinski), who manages to capture our hero in a slow-motion psychedelic-like sequence that involves him shooting Chin in the leg and then circling him with his horse before knocking him out with the butt of his rifle. This strange scene is followed by an even stranger one. We see that Scalper Jack has both Christina and Chin tied up in a small cabin. He spends some time combing a bloody scalp he had previously removed from the doctor’s head, then smells the comb, and finally places the scalp on the bald dome of a black doll. Only Kinski, with his dagger cheek-bones and bulging eyes, could play such a madman.
Once he starts smelling the hair of the tied-up Christina, I guarantee that chills will shoot down your spin. I won’t reveal how he does it, but I will say that Chin escapes and moves on to face his final foe, a fellow martial arts expert who was trained in the same monastery by the same master but who went bad, to conclude a thrill-ride of a film.
Fighting Fist of Shanghai Joe is by no means a perfect spaghetti western, but it is perfectly entertaining and should be watched by every fan of the genre at least once. And although most of it is reportedly recycled from Have a good Funeral My Friend. . . Sartana Will Pay (1970), Bruno Nicolai’s great score only adds to the fun.